Blog #9: Rich Morality #2

Blog # 9: Rich Morality #2

[This posting–the second of a four-part posting about moral issues—consists of a brief biography of Adrienne Rich, and the introductions from Fathers: A Literary Anthology to her essay “Split at the Root” and her poem “After Dark.”]

Adrienne Rich: Thumbnail Biography

“Philoctetes in woman’s form,” Baltimore born in 1929, Radcliffe-educated, praised by Auden at 21, mother of three sons at 29, widowed by suicide at 41, honoured by numerous awards (including a Bollingen, a MacArthur Fellowship, a National Book Award, and the famously declined National Medal for the Arts), partner of writer Michelle Cliff for almost 35 years, and sufferer of rheumatoid arthritis since her early twenties, Adrienne Rich is a poet, essayist, critic, and revolutionary whose accomplishments are still seriously undervalued. Partly this is because she started as a poet who worked within “the boundaries of perfection” and who, when those boundaries exploded, has sometimes been shrill and polemical in her pursuit of “the truths of outrage and the truths of possibility.” It must be remembered, however, that Rich is “a woman with a mission not to win prizes / but to change the laws of history.” If some of her later poems lack the polished control of “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” the metaphysical depths of “Diving,” or the biographical symbolism of “Power,” many show her to be—as she has said of Karl Marx—“a great geographer of the human condition.” Numerous provocative and insightful essays—essays such as “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision,” “If Not With Others, How?,” “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” and the “Arts of the Possible”–resurvey, remap, and even open up new territory. Equally powerful and transformational are reviews and critical essays such as “Jane Eyre: The Temptations of a Motherless Woman,” “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson,” and “Three Classics for New Readers: Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Che Guevera.” More Hephaestus than Philoctetes, through her writings Rich has forged tools and instruments with which to probe and “break open lost chambers of possibility.”

Adrienne Rich: “Split at the Root”

“Split at the Root” was written for Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology, and later reprinted in Ursula Owen’s Fathers: Reflections by Daughters. At the time of its writing, Rich was also working on “Sources,” a remarkable, if deeply conflicted, poem of self-exploration. Essay and poem are companion pieces in which Rich, with her typical courage and anger, tries to make sense of herself and her relationship with her father. In her poem, “Sources,” she describes herself as “the eldest daughter in a house with no son, she who must overthrow the father.” She addresses her father directly, saying, “[f]or years I struggled with you: your categories, your will, the cruelty which came inextricable from your love.” In her writings, Rich has the clarity of vision and the courage to see herself as wounded, as split at the root, and she strives to overcome his denials by recognizing her own. Even in attacking and rejecting the father, she has the courage to recognize her kinship with him. His wounds are her wounds, and her split is engendered by his. Questor and quested, she is the “token” daughter of a “token” man; and in order to heal her “split consciousness” she has to overcome her father’s legacy of denial. Only by recognizing and giving voice to his wounds can she start to heal her own.

Adrienne Rich: “After Dark”

“After Dark” is included in part to provide a pretext for editorial comment. The decision to place Adrienne Rich at or near the center of this anthology is a deliberate one. So, too, is the decision to include both an essay and a poem by her. Other writers could easily have had two pieces included—Raymond Carver, for instance, or May Sarton. If Rich is the only writer to be so honoured, it is because her writings and her life are central to the values of this anthology. For Rich, literature is an instrument of vision and re-vision. For Rich, writing is an instrument of change. While much of her writing may be uncomfortable to read,—and sometimes difficult to like—Adrienne Rich constantly challenges us to examine our assumptions about ourselves and our society. Poet and political activist, “glass-blower” and “missile-thrower,” she demands that we see clearly and that we change and act accordingly.

The father is always part of the child, and in their struggles to free themselves from the father some children do violence to themselves. “After Dark” is an expression of such violence. The narrative self, after all, is “self-maimed.” Written four years before her father’s death, and eighteen years before “Split at the Root” and “Sources,” “After Dark” lacks the insight and understanding of those later works. Anger, not acceptance, drives this poem. This anger is perhaps best seen in the multiplicity of Shakespearean voices, as the speaker by turns echoes or paraphrases Regan, Cordelia, Lear, and Ariel. While the later Rich usually tries to do justice to her multiple identities, here there is no justice, no understanding, and the multiple voices ring forced and false. At best, they are evidence of “Underground Seizures.” In other poems of this period, Rich had already distanced herself from Shakespeare and the literary models drilled into her by her father. Here, despite the protective tenderness and the apparent reconciliation,” the narrative self remains “torn at the roots”—scarred by the past and unable to assimilate it successfully. In this early attempt to come to terms with her father, Rich had yet to see that fathers cannot be escaped by self mutilation.

[The next posting will talk about how I handle rejection]

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